What danger? Australians love their sharks, but not the jellyfish

News of shark attacks off Australian beaches reverberate through newspapers around the world, and stick fast in our collective memory. Yet how many remember deaths by lightning strike – despite that more than five times as many Australians are killed by electrical bolts from the skies than by sharks?

However, something strange, and distinctly Australian, has happened over the past generation – Australians have come to love their sharks, with the majority apparently supporting their protection. This comes in spite of a surge in shark attacks in recent years from an historical average of just one death per year, to four in 2011 and five in 2014.

In August 2015 the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper posted a poll on its website asking its readers ‘Should sharks be culled on the NSW North Coast?’ This came shortly after a surfer was attacked and killed in northern New South Wales, when shark attacks were high in the national discourse. Interestingly, 46% voted ‘No, the ocean is their domain, not ours; we are the intruders’ while another 26% voted ‘No, it’s important to protect them’. The total of ‘Yes, cull them’ votes added up to a mere 23% compared to that huge 72% who did not want to see sharks killed. While a newspaper poll is not science, and might spur more passionate ‘greenies’ to vote, it is one more indication of the clear direction of Australian public opinion.

Public support for the protection of sharks even bubbled up into a mass protest in February 2014 when 6,000 people gathered on Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia waving banners against the government’s culling of sharks, instigated by a spate of fatal shark attacks in the area. Most attacks were attributed to great white sharks, making them the obvious target of culling efforts. However, of the first 170 sharks caught (68 large ones were killed, the smaller ones released) none was a great white.

The pro-shark protesters’ placards got their message across graphically. SOS – Save Our Sharks read one. Others carried messages both fun and serious: Cull pollies (politicians) not sharks; Great whites have rights; Culling is not a solution – It is murder; It’s their ocean, not ours.

At the same time another 2,000 pro-shark protesters gathered on Manly Beach, Sydney, while smaller protests against the killing of sharks in Western Australia erupted elsewhere around the country. The Australian Director of Sea Shepherd, Jeff Hansen, was quoted as saying 80 - 90% of Australians now oppose the killing of sharks.

Australia has something of a tradition of protecting its most deadly inhabitants. All of Australia’s many deadly snakes are protected under law. The fearsome saltwater crocodile that grows to seven metres and loves to make a snack of a human when the opportunity arises, has been protected since the 1970s. Following years of hunting that came close to wiping them out, crocodile numbers have rebounded to such levels that swimming in a river in Australia’s north today is akin to throwing oneself onto the BBQ plate.

Australia’s most deadly killer of all, however, enjoys no such protection. That’s the innocuous-looking, but barely visible, box jellyfish (chironex fleckeri) famed for being able to stop a human heart in just three minutes. While the box jellyfish had long been thought to be an exclusively Australian problem, a new awareness has shown that box jellyfish have also been killing people in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries like The Philippines for years with little brouhaha.

In 2015 sharks had killed two people in Australia by September 2015, the time of writing, with one of those a Japanese surfing the waves in northern New South Wales, south of the Gold Coast. Here on the Gold Coast the last two fatalities were in 2002 and 2003, with both occurring not in the open ocean where they might be expected, but in the brackish lakes behind the coast where people build their million dollar homes. Both attacks have been attributed to the aggressive bull sharks that inhabit the murky waters of rivers and estuaries worldwide. Jumping into the surf along the Gold Coast is statistically very, very safe.

The only sharks the average visitor to The Coast is likely to see are those in Sea World’s huge aquarium. There’s a better chance of seeing migrating whales – which are often seen from true beachfront apartments – than marauding sharks.

birds, birds everywhere; animals and forests

Australia is a land of birds, and because the locals don’t eat their wildlife, many species have adapted to live alongside humans in cities and suburbs. The trees, parks and skies of the Gold Coast are alive with birds year-round, and the volume and beauty of birdsong can be a delight – and an especially big surprise for visitors from Asia where few birds escape the cooking pot.

Even large wild turkeys that might make a family meal in Asia can be seen wandering Gold Coast parks and suburbs in search of food – always staying just a few well-calculated paces away from people. White ibis over half a metre tall are one of the most common sights in both parks and streets, scavenging any food scraps they can.

The most raucously noisy of The Coast’s feathered inhabitants are the parrots, mostly bright, multi-coloured lorikeets that flock into flowering trees and easily drown out all traffic and other sounds with their argumentive screeching. It’s a credit to the Gold Coast that there are simply so many trees here, with different varieties flowering off and no through the year to feed the parrots. Huge, all-white sulphur-crested cockatoos often announce their presence with ear-scraping squawks, but happily for the eardrums these generally stick to the highest trees.

Then there are the ubiquitous seagulls that can be found on both beaches and suburban lawns, ever-ready to snatch any food left unattended. Children sometimes entertain themselves chasing the birds, which are always manage to stay a couple of flaps ahead. Australians also like to feed birds at their homes, with one of the most popular beneficiaries being the iconic kookaburra, the robust kingfisher famous for the voluminous laughing call that reverberates through the Australian bush every morning and evening.

Any Gold Coast visitor with the interest can discover a whole range of other birds; common crows, magpies, pee-wees, willy wagtails, galahs and various other parrots, butcher birds, blue-eyed honey eaters and many more. Any visitors staying by a park of forested area will be serenaded each morning with an amazing cacophony of birdsong, something to be found in few other parts of the world.

preserving that beautiful beach environment

With Australia being such a beach-oriented society (90% of the population is said to live within 60 minutes drive of the ocean) it is not surprising that beach science is better developed here than almost anywhere else on the planet. As mentioned elsewhere, this writer grew up along the Gold Coast beaches in the 1960 and once saw the Gold Coast almost completely stripped of sand following one powerful storm. The sight was terrible; waves were breaking over rocks directly below the main beach road in the middle of Surfers Paradise. The beach? It had completely disappeared, swept away to who-knew-where? It was the same at Broadbeach, Main Beach and my favourite beach, Currumbin; waves smashing on rocks where there had recently been a beautiful sandy beach; waves threatening to eat further into the coastline.

After much soul searching and science, government and experts came to the conclusion that man’s interventions – or modern progress as some saw it – were the principal cause of the malaises then threatening to sink the Gold Coast’s tourism future. Scientists came to grips with solutions, and one early correction, the pumping of sand around man-made barriers along the coast – thus allowing the natural, northward flow of sand to continue – was introduced to good effect.

Today the Gold Coast beaches are healthier than they were during my childhood. Every beach that lost all its sand in the 1960s now has an exceptionally wide beach, with many now having dunes building towards the back. By acting as buffers during big storms, sand dunes, it is now well understood, are critical for the health of beaches. In the 1950s sand dunes were bulldozed and many Gold Coast suburbs had homes built right up to the beach.

Building on sand dunes is now outlawed on Australian beaches, and all new beachfront developments must begin well back behind those dunes. Today’s protections – including many fences that keep people completely off the dunes at the back of Gold Coast beaches – have seen new sand dunes slowly forming in front of some of the old, intrusive buildings that over-built the original dunes. Nature is putting back that which man once removed.

The Sunshine Coast, Queensland’s other famous stretch of holiday beaches about 200 kilometres to the north, saw much of its development start after new beach conservation regulations were in place, and has benefitted greatly from the harsh lessons learned on the Gold Coast.

the amazing Gondwana rainforests on the Gold Coast hinterland

Rainforests of exceptional beauty cover the elevated hinterland that lies to the back of the Gold Coast’s beaches, and no discussion of the regional environment would be complete without noting that these are of such significance to Australia that these ‘Gondwana rainforests’ now enjoy World Heritage status. Approximately half of Australia’s total plant species are found in these ancient forests, which include many primitive species that date back 100 million years to the origins of flowering plants. The number of animal species found here is also exceptionally high.

This mountainous area is largely protected by National Parks, including Springbrook, Lamington and Border Ranges National Parks. Scores of waterfalls tumble over the mountainsides, and green valleys cut through the ranges. Hundreds of kilometres of walking trails enable visitors to amble right into the heart of these luxuriant forests. Birds and animals are regularly spotted. Around the edges of the national parks restaurants and accommodations are available, making visiting here on either a day-trip or overnight both easy and a great pleasure.

A visit into this ethereal world of deep forest and steep mountains gives Gold Coast visitors a dramatic break from the beaches, and a unique rainforest adventure. See the separate page on visiting the Gold Coast hinterland for more information on places to go, and how to get there.

by John Everingham